A Blast From the Past: Kirkus Review of “Oliver Wiswell”

Book reviews are not one of the most popular forms of reading in today’s abundance of literature. Usually (at least in my circles) they are read by scholars or graduate students as they do research for papers or projects. I must admit, before I began my Ph.D., I had no interest in book reviews; I for sure did not see any value in them other than learning about another person’s opinion about a book.

As I progressed through my Ph.D. studies, I began to develop an appreciation for book reviews. True, they primarily provide one scholar’s view of another’s work; but, they also give a glimpse into the life and time of the author and the subject of the review – they are snippets of history. Here, you also observe the attitudes toward a particular book and its author – attitudes that are generally lost among the innumerable details of the past. It brings to life a particular author, and it sets a book in its context.

YesterdayI came across a book review on Oliver Wiswell written by Kirkus in 1940. According to Kirkusreviews.com, Kirkus was:

Founded in 1933, Kirkus has been an authoritative voice in book discovery for 80 years. Kirkus Reviewsmagazine gives industry professionals a sneak peek at the most notable books being published weeks before they’re released. When the books become available for purchase, Kirkus serves the book reviews to consumers in a weekly email newsletter and on Kirkus.com, giving readers unbiased, critical recommendations they can trust.

The reviewer of Oliver Wiswell gave the book four stars – the highest rating given to a book by the reviewer from Kirkus since three starts was given to Grapes of Wrath (1939). The reviewer says of Oliver Wiswell: “A superb love story — an extraordinary piece of characterization — and a unique background, handled with Roberts’ masterful technique.”  The question is raised, however, if America was ready for such a book – one of the American Revolution told from the perspective of a Loyalist.

Up to the time of Roberts’ writing of Oliver Wiswell, Roberts had no recollection of any book on the American Revolution told from the Loyalist perspective. For Roberts, such a lack betrayed an incomplete view of the Revolution. Roberts was criticized by some for writing from the Loyalist perspective, claiming that Roberts himself was favorable toward England and her cause in the war with the colonies. Nevertheless, Oliver Wiswell quickly became one of Roberts’ more well-known works.

After providing a brieve summary of the novel, the reviewer from Kirkus closes their review with high praise for Roberts’ 1940 novel:

I could quote,endlessly, passages that give the book an incredible timeliness. But I’ll leave it to you — and you — and you. Don’t miss it. This is THE book of the year — the book that gives us a symbol of the ideals which were forged in the crucible and came out a great nation. Roberts has told great stories; he has contributed as much as any and more than most, to our American background. This is his best book.

The reviewer does not shy from providing a glowing endorsement of Roberts’ controversial novel. Particularly noteworthy is that a higher rating was given to Roberts’ work than that given to Grapes of Wrath – a work that eventually outlasted Roberts’ work in the public eye. Steinbeck’s work is still widely read and published relative to Oliver Wiswell, which has all but faded from the memory of American readers.

Perhaps there will be a day when Kenneth Roberts and his works are once again making waves in American culture as was the case in the early- to mid-twentieth century.

First Edition Books: The Seventh Sense

Kenneth Roberts’ first book on water dowsing was Henry Gross and His Dowsing Rod; he quickly followed with a sequel titled The Seventh Sense (1953). According to Jack Bales, Henry Gross was given charitable reviews primarily because of Roberts’ reputation as a novelist; however, reviews for The Seventh Sense were not as favorable (Bales, 1993, 100). Noted in The Seventh Sense is Roberts’ hostile tone toward those who disagree with him regarding water dowsing. Roberts takes a rather ad hominem approach to discrediting his critics’ views which dimmed his reputation in the eyes of his colleagues.

Below are pictures of the first-edition of The Seventh Sense. Though not one of Roberts’ most popular works, it is a nice collection piece for those who seek to collect all of Roberts’ books.

Front of Dust Jacket - The Seventh Sense

Title Page - The Seventh Sense

Copyright Info - The Seventh Sense

"Hollis, N.H. / The water supply of this school flows from veins dowsed on a map in Kennebunkport by Henry Gross & Kenneth Roberts November 7, 1951 proved in Hollis November 8, 1951 / Henry Hills / Denton Lates / Irving Simonds / Beryl Orde / Arthur Davis"

“Hollis, N.H. / The water supply of this school flows from veins dowsed on a map in Kennebunkport by Henry Gross & Kenneth Roberts November 7, 1951 proved in Hollis November 8, 1951 / Henry Hills / Denton Lates / Irving Simonds / Beryl Orde / Arthur Davis”

First Edition Books: Battle of Cowpens

The first book that I want to highlight in the series titled “Kenneth Roberts First Edition Books” is Battle of Cowpens: The Story of 900 Men Who Shook an Empire. This is the only book that was not published by Kenneth Roberts as it was published posthumously after Roberts’ death on July 21, 1957.

Boon Island and Battle of Cowpens were Roberts’ last two novels, but his first two novels following his venture with water dowsing. After publishing Lydia Bailey, Roberts shifted his focus to promoting the validity and value of water dowsing and wrote Henry Gross and His Dowsing Rod (1951), The Seventh Sense (1953), and Water Unlimited (1957).

According to Jack Bales in Kenneth Roberts, Collier’s magazine approached Roberts’ representatives at Doubleday to see if he would be interested in writing a 4,000- to 5,000- word article on the Battle of Cowpens (Bales, 115). Roberts agreed and published his article in 1956. His work for the Collier’s article motivated Roberts to write a novel on General Daniel Morgan (who commanded the 900-man American army against the British at the Battle of Cowpens). Unfortunately, Roberts died while his work was in its research stage. Bales quotes Roberts’ secretary as stating that “‘Any plans for such a book were in Mr. Roberts’ head at the time of his death'” (Bales, 115).

Before Roberts’ died, however, an old friend, Herbert Faulkner West, approached Roberts about publishing his Collier’s article in a limited edition book form (Bales, 116). Roberts would not live, however, to see this book.

West wrote the forward for Battle of Cowpens, and in the spirit of Kenneth Roberts, Marjorie Mosser Ellis (Roberts’ niece and secretary) complained to Doubleday for allowing West’s “negative” forward to be included with the book (he had negative comments about Northwest Passage, Boon Island, and his three water dowsing books [Bales, 116]). Further, Moser corrects West in that Roberts did not rewrite Battle of Cowpens for West; rather, Collier’s “hacked” Roberts’ article to pieces and the book form represents Roberts’ work in its true form (Bales, 116).

Lastly, Bales notes that while Battle of Cowpens exhibits Roberts’ attention to detail and illustrates his in-depth historical research, it does not flow smoothly. One reviewer also points out various errors in Roberts’ work – errors that Bales assumes (correctly, in my opinion) that Roberts “would have corrected these if he had lived to complete his project” (Bales, 116). No doubt had Roberts lived, Battle of Cowpens would have fit Roberts’ mold of a historical fiction novel (Bales, 116, quoting from Howard H. Peckham, review, William and Mary Quarterly 3:15 [1958]: 530).

Earlier in my collecting days, I was unsure about the status of Battle of Cowpens; that is, I didn’t know if it was published alone or if it was published in a set. About 10 years ago or so, I found a four-volume set of Kenneth Roberts books, and the title of the set was Kenneth Roberts Reader of the American Revolution published in 1976. The set included Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Oliver Wiswell, and Battle of Cowpens.

Kenneth Roberts Reader of the American RevolutionSince then, I thought that Battle of Cowpens was available only this four-volume set. Later I became aware of the fact that Battle of Cowpens was published by itself shortly after Roberts’ passing. Below are some pictures of the dust jacket, the maps on the end papers, and the copyright page. Note that the copy I bought is the first trade edition; Roberts had a limited number of copies published and each one was signed – I hope to get one of these copies eventually.

Battle of Cowpens Dust Jacket

Endpaper maps

End paper maps

Notice that the copyright is to Kenneth Roberts' estate. To my knowledge, the bank that managed his estate is no longer in existence. I am currently trying to track down who holds the rights to Kenneth Roberts' estate.

Notice that the copyright is to Kenneth Roberts’ estate. To my knowledge, the bank that managed his estate is no longer in existence. I am currently trying to track down who holds the rights to Kenneth Roberts’ estate.

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: Historical Novels on “Arundel”

This morning while trolling Google for anything Kenneth Roberts related, I came across a great blog titled “Historical Novels.” According to the welcome message on the home page, the site “may interest those who enjoy historical fiction AND take the history seriously. I confess that I’m the sort who is outraged when a new historical novel or film takes liberties with known historical facts – for no good reason (sometimes there are good reasons). To that end, novels are rated on five criteria – posed as questions.”

I’ve actually been thinking lately of reading more historical fiction novels, but I’ll be honest, I’m rather hesitant to do so because I am unfamiliar with any other historical fiction writer. Hopefully, this blog can rescue me from the doldrums of ignorance.

Back in 2011, “Historical Novels” provided a favorable post for Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel, which you can read here. A link is also provided for what looks to be a very promising website: historicalnovels.info – a website that lists over 5000 historical novels.

Kenneth Roberts First-Edition Books

For many book collectors, first-edition books are sought after with the passion and energy of a pirate searching for buried treasure. Almost any first-edition will do (particularly for those books that are extremely rare), but if the book’s binding is still tight, the hinges intact, and the original dust jacket (and slipcase if applicable) is present, then the find is just that much better. For the novice book collectors (like me), though, being able to know what particular first-editions look like (especially the true first-editions) can be difficult.

I’ve sought after Kenneth Roberts’ first-edition books for the longest time, but have only recently been able to actually purchase some of them. As I posted back in July, I was able to find a first-edition of March to Quebec as well as the limited, 2 volume edition of Oliver Wiswell (without slipcase). For my anniversary, I was able to find (and purchase!) three more first-edition Kenneth Roberts books that I’ve been unable to find up to this point. Now that my Kenneth Roberts collection has improved with the recent first-edition purchases, I figured that a new series on this website is in order. Hence, the first post on Kenneth Roberts First-Edition Books.

This series will be devoted to providing pictures of what particular first-editions look like (particularly the dust jacket) and what the copyright page looks like as well (not all “first-editions” are true first-editions). Jack Bales has provided two helpful articles written in the 1990s that are devoted to Roberts’ first-edition books; I will be referencing these articles to help supplement anything that I am able to find.

Lastly, I have also purchased Mark York‘s Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March to Quebec, 1775. Mark is a frequent visitor and commenter on this site, and I look forward to reading this work.  I’ll be providing a review of this book in an upcoming post as well.

Kenneth Roberts in Current News: Rick Salutin’s “Simcoe Day”

Today’s installment of “Kenneth Roberts in Current News” comes to you from http://www.rabble.ca in an article by Rick Salutin titled “Simcoe Day: How Should We Celebrate a Myopic Vision of Canada,” published on 8/4/2014. The subject of the article is John Graves Simcoe who, according to wikipedia.org, was a British army officer and, from 1791-1796, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe was also instrumental in helping establish what is now Toronto and in “introducing institutions such as the courts, trial by jury, English common law, freehold land tenure, and the abolition of slavery” (wikipedia.org/wiki/john_graves_simcoe).

Salutin’s article provides a brief summary of Simcoe’s contributions to Canada, as well as his tribulations. In addition to the accomplishments listed above, Simcoe was “accused of atrocities, always hard to sort out in wartime, like massacring prisoners and trying to assassinate Washington” (Salutin, para. 4). After being captured in the British defeat at Yorktown, he was shipped back to England where he married an heiress and began his political career. He would eventually seek to make Canada a recreation of “genteel English society,” which would serve as a “beacon for the U.S., who’d forsake their own revolution and rejoin the Empire” (Salutin, para. 4).

Earlier this year, AMC aired Turn: Washington’s Spies, which tells of”‘America’s first spy network'” during the Revolutionary War. In the show, Simcoe is depicted as a “magnificent British villain…he sneers, he taunts, he tortures, he kills” (Salutin, para. 2). Salutin confesses that, despite being an “Ontario history buff,” he was not aware that Simcoe was a player in the American Revolutionary War (Salutin, para. 2). Yet, he was aware of the United Empire Loyalists – those Americans who settled in British colonies (in particular Canada) during or after the Revolutionary War (wikipedia.org/wiki/united_empire_loyalists).

Salutin recounts that he first heard of the United Empire Loyalists and their creating “Anglo Canada after the revolution” from Kenneth Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell which he read when in high school. He also notes that he read Rabble in Arms as well. An interesting connection between Simcoe and Kenneth Roberts that Salutin brings out is that Simcoe “took over a renowned/infamous unit called Roger’s Rangers (Roberts also wrote a novel on them) and renamed them the Queen’s Rangers. Their colours sit in Fort York today” (Salutin, para. 3).

Salutin’s description of Roberts does little justice to Roberts’ contribution to American history and historical fiction writing. Salutin says of Roberts: “Roberts was a cranky conservative in the heyday of American liberalism” (Salutin, para. 2). While Roberts’ cantankerousness and his strong conservative views are well-documented, Salutin’s description really accomplishes nothing in his brief discussion of Roberts works; I fail to see what connection he tries to make here.[1] Nevertheless, I believe that Salutin highlights a point about Kenneth Roberts’ works – despite their having been written over a half-century ago, they are still of historical value even today. While Roberts’ conservative views may be outdated, the historical contribution he made to American history stands the test of time.

Though Salutin laments how Canadians sometimes have to learn from Americans about Canadian history, I appreciate his article, for its Canadian author has taught this American something he did not know about American history.

 

[1] Rick Salutin’s bio on rabble.ca states that “he is a strong advocate of left wing causes” (http://rabble.ca/category/bios/contributor/columnist/rick-salutin). It’s common when one writes on someone of opposing views to make some remark that distances himself from his subject. Perhaps Salutin’s comment is such an attempt. Still, his remark does not serve the point he seeks to make, particularly in the paragraph in which his remark occurs. It is true that one cannot separate the subject’s personal beliefs and views from their works, there are instances such as this where can focus on the subject’s work apart from their overarching worldview. If the article touched on issues of race and immigration (issues on which I strongly disagree with Roberts), for instance, then it would be fair for Salutin to make the remark he does in “Simcoe Day.”

Kenneth Roberts’ Genealogy

Characters bearing the surname of Towne or Nason serve as either the main protagonist or play a central role in most of Kenneth Roberts’ novels.  For instance, Langdon Towne was the central character in Oliver Wiswell and Steven Nason was the central character in Arundel. Roberts use of these surnames exhibit not only his attention to historical detail, but his desire to link his works to his New England ancestors.

Some time ago, a Kenneth Roberts fan mailed me some information he received when he attended a presentation by Jack Bales at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. Among the material sent was a short genealogy of Roberts’ family.

Kenneth Lewis Roberts (1885-1957)

Parents: Frank Lewis Roberts (b. 1840) and Grace Mary Tibbetts (1840)

Grandparents: Jane Amanda Nason (b. 1800) and Ebenezer Armstrong Tibbitts (b. 1800)

Great Grandparents: Daniel Nason (b. 1785) and Lydia Towne (b. 1785)

Great-Great Grandparents: Edward Nason (1756-1847) and Sarah Merrill (b. 1758)

Great-Great-Great Grandparents: Joshua Nason (b. 1725) and Sarah Butler (b. 1728)

Interestingly, Roberts follows his family history from his mother’s side; none of the characters in Roberts’ books are based on ancestors from his father’s side. Various reasons are plausible for such an exclusion. Jack Bales in Kenneth Roberts states that little is known of Roberts’ father (and even of Roberts’ immediate family [Bales, 1]) and that he “was not at all close to his father and never mentioned him in any of his articles or books” (Bales, 2). It’s unknown why Roberts was distant from his father, but one can speculate that his father’s job as a traveling salesman played a significant role (Bales, 2).

Roberts’ relationship with his mother, on the other hand, was one that Roberts spoke of in his I Wanted to Write and in various essays (Bales, 2). The time spent with his mother’s family eventually served as the backdrop for his writings on Maine and his novels.

Though Roberts’ characters surnamed Towne or Nason are fictional, they are based upon real people in Roberts’ past and illustrate his deep appreciation for his family’s history and for his beloved state of Maine.

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